Posts Tagged fps

From Innsmouth, With Love


Call of the Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth took a long time to develop. When it was finally released, its insanity mechanic and physics engine were no longer novelties, its visuals looked dated, and its feeble gunplay and frustrating stealth left FPS fans largely dissatisfied. The adventuring elements stood out among the genre, though, and the game did a fantastic job of implementing the Mythos’ bestiary.

The Call of the Cthulhu setting is very much about the unimaginable terrors of the cosmos. Humankind is fairly insignificant against this backdrop, and the notable races and entities range tremendously in motives and capabilities. Although Dark Corners of the Earth has its fair share of grunt enemies, trying to distill all of the Mythos into common FPS foes with movement speeds, line-of-sight ranges, HP values, weapon weaknesses, etc., wouldn’t have been true to the source material.


The Lost City of Pnakotus is teased from the very beginning.

Thankfully Headfirst Productions didn’t go that route, instead focusing on how to best implement the iconic monstrosities as they appeared in the original stories and Chaosium’s Pen & Paper campaigns. Here are my three favourite examples:

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Minimap Rotation

Not too long ago I praised The Witcher for a plethora of things it did really well. The sequel’s not bad either, but its minimap is absolutely horrible. The main problem is that it rotates with the camera, and the lack of compass directions also exasperates the issue.

Rotating minimaps are great for following a linear path, which is why GPS devices use this design. The user hardly ever needs to worry about whether they’re driving South or South-East, but they need to accurately follow the generated route. Consequently, it’s a lot easier if the path is always facing the same direction as the car, i.e., if the arrow on the screen is pointing right, they need to make a right hand turn.

However, if the map doesn’t rotate, then driving South with an arrow pointing right actually means making a left-hand turn. To avoid this confusion and unnecessary work with mentally rotating the map, the view of GPS devices is synched to match that of the car.

FPS titles also tend to benefit from rotating minimaps. Their levels are often small or just linear, and it’s very helpful for the player to be synced with the minimap view. The reason for this is that split-second decisions often need to be made based on the immediate surroundings.

For example, if the player is following a team-mate turning right but there’s an enemy hiding just around the left corner, it’s beneficial to instantly know which direction to face in order to counter the ambush. Since FPS games also inherently don’t possess a floating camera, it’s that much more advantageous to be aware of what’s lurking beyond the player’s view as there’s no other way to peek around the scenery.

Static minimaps, on the other hand, are much more suitable for games with large areas that need to be traversed multiple times.

In these titles, it’s important to familiarize oneself with the layout of the land in order to travel through it efficiently. Goals are often described with compass directions in mind, and landmarks are used to aid in the building of a mental map for the overall area.

If the minimap constantly swings around, not only does it keep changing the direction north is pointing, but it also forces the player to digest a radically different topography each time they glance at the minimap. A static view is superior to this as it facilitates the parsing and memorization of an area’s layout. This in turn allows the player plot their own paths and comfortably maneauver through the game’s environments.

Of course some players are only used to one approach or the other, in which case why not simply include both options?

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Design Roundup #7


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Wheel of Time Bits

I was never a big fan of The Wheel of Time series, but I liked the actual game quite a bit.

The notable parts:

— The title largely revolves around the player’s armament of Ter’angreal, ancient artifacts that grant magical powers. They’re grouped together into numerous categories — offensive projectiles, homing attacks, shields, immobilizers, summoners, magic nullifiers, etc. — and encompass gameplay modifiers that are usually presented via inventory items.

The tutorial does a good job of introducing the player to various facets of the game.

Many of the Ter’angreal are also only used to solve in-level puzzles, while others are strictly limited to multiplayer.

— Many of the enemies have an annoying habit of instantly sidestepping incoming projectiles. It looks awkward, wastes precious ammo, and often forces the player to aim at the ground in order to cause splash damage.

Aside from this odd quirk, the enemies themselves are quite varied. They have drastically different amounts of health, fire numerous types of projectiles, can deflect or absorb the player’s attacks, and even possess special abilities such as teleportation.

A rather dramatic entrance by one of the more powerful enemies.

— The vast amount of Ter’angreals makes it difficult to properly use them in fast-paced battles, but when the interface doesn’t get in the way, they work quite well.

Here’s an example:

I entered a small arena where I encountered a magic-wielding boss. I immediately threw up a magic-dissipating field, activating it just in time to dissolve a barrage of incoming projectiles.

As the field’s timer began to count down, I queued up a Reflect Ter’angreal and activated it when the field wore off. It batted back an approaching Soul Barb, a homing Ter’angreal that damages its target whenever it attempts to use any of its own weapons. The Soul Barb struck my foe, and I went on the offensive with a Decay.

Decay is useful for boss battles as it homes in and damages enemies over time, but it’s also quite slow. My opponent was able to bring up her own magic-nullifying shield before the projectile reached her, but since the dissipating fields work both ways, she was unable to counterattack.

I used to the time to retreat and heal up, and as her field was about to expire, I launched a Freeze. The projectile reached my opponent right after her shield went down, encasing her in a solid block of ice. I immediately threw out an Earth Tremor, an area-of-effect Ter’angreal that causes continuous damage, and started blasting away with other offensive spells. My immobile target screamed as the ice slowly melted, and victory was mine.

Of course at other times you round a corner only to be hit by 2 Fireballs and die instantly. It’s a flawed system that encourages quick-saving/loading, but when it works, it does a good job of making combat feel like a magical duel.

Another clever puzzle that requires the player to place some Explosive Wards on a barrier and then blow it up. This will flood the sewers and allow access to a brand new area.

— Many of the Ter’angreal are also used exclusively for puzzles. They’re placed very deliberately so that there’s never much experimentation, and the puzzles themselves are usually straightforward, e.g., using a fire shield to walk across a furnace, but there’s a handful of more interesting ones as well.

One of my favourites revolves around getting across a vast chasm between a rampart and a fortress.

The rampart contains an opening that provides a view of the fortress, complete with a metal shield adorning one of its walls. The shield can be struck with a projectile, creating a loud sound that summons the guards. Once one of the sentries is visible, the player can use the Swap Places Ter’angreal to teleport into the fortress while jettisoning the enemy back into the isolated rampart.

Two enemies (one lurking in the shadows) about to duke it out in Shador Logoth.

— The overall level design is quite good with interesting environments that take advantage of 3D to loop in on themselves. Progression is still fairly linear, but with enough twists and turns (and optional passages) to feel fairly open while still guiding the player.

There’s some scripted sequences here as well, but they’re pretty sparse and clunky when compared to something like Half-Life.

— WoT contains a large amount of destructible objects, traps, climbable areas, lever/pressure plate/key based puzzles and a handful of scripted triggers that collapse floors, walls, etc. When combined with the aforementioned puzzle-Ter’angreals, these components make for pretty interactive levels that help breathe life into the world.

As an interesting side note, Balefire, the BFG of WoT, can disintegrate various props that are not part of the architecture. These objects do not regularly react to weapon use, imbuing Balefire with an added sense of power.

— Shadar Logoth is a destroyed city haunted by a deranged evil. It’s notable for its unique enemies that attack the player and his foes, as well as a monstrous boss called Legion. Its main attraction, however, is the Mashadar fog.

The deadly fog homing in on the player.

The first time I played the game, I started anxiously looking around when I heard some soft hissing. I couldn’t spot anything coming down the hallway facing me, so I decided to hunker down and wait in ambush in case an enemy appeared.

That’s when the screen became a white haze and my character started screaming in pain.

I scrambled around, desperately firing off Ter’angreal and trying to get away from whatever was hurting me. That’s when I realized what was happening: the puffy mists I passed earlier on weren’t just an ambient decoration, they were a vicious threat!

The ethereal fog snaked out of its hole and coiled around me, mindlessly following my character like harmless prey.  My panicked counterattack actually hit the fog, forcing it to retreat, but there was no way to actually kill it. Soon the hissing filled the air, and I ran as the fog followed.

— Shador Logoth ends in an interesting mission that takes place in a large arena. The level is filled with numerous Ter’angreal and a never-ending onslaught of enemies, and its main goal is simply to survive until daybreak.

The main character is joined by a handful of NPCs, and although the powerups don’t seem to respawn (requiring a lot more exploration than in a typical Alamo standoff), the gameplay is similar to current-day multiplayer modes such as Gears of War 2’s Horde.

A helpful Ter'angreal that lets the player snatch some extra ammo during the assault on the White Tower.

— Following the brutal assault on the White Tower, the player is tasked with recovering her arsenal of Ter’angreal and retrieving a special artifact in the citadel’s vaults.

The mission makes sense within the narrative as well as the gameplay, and provides a nice change of pace from the intense battles that preceded it. The level lacks enemies of any kind — except for an end-boss — and is filled with traps and puzzles that take advantage of various Ter’angreal such as Seeker and Levitate.

A mirror-image fight at the end of the puzzle-filled Vault.

— The Ways are a series of stone walkways floating in a dark void that serve as shortcuts throughout the land. In one of the levels, the player character is forced to traverse them in order to pursue the antagonist. In the process, she encounters the Machin Shin.

Staying within the Ways for an extended period of time summons this infinite wall of ghostly heads that scream and whisper as they approach. It’s a very striking event, and one of the most memorable parts of the game.

The Machin Shin approaches.

If the “Black Wind” envelops the player character, the small amount of lighting in the level — including the Light Sphere Ter’angreal — is subdued as she is slowly killed.

The Ways are also used as a clever framing device. The player must periodically exit the ways to avoid the Machin Shin, each time facing a new challenge. These mini-levels force the player to find a way to re-enter the gateway, or simply survive long enough for the the Machin Shin to recede.

— The second last level is another Alamo standoff, but this time the player is forced to protect injured NPCs. An interesting twist here is that the map is filled with portculli that the player can control, effectively funneling the enemies while setting up traps.

The final seal being delivered via a Portal Stone.

A neat touch is a lever that opens up a floor grate above a pool of acid, and a Whirlwind Ter’angreal located just beside it. This allows the player to toss in various enemies while staying out of harm’s way.

— The audio in WoT definitely stands the test of time. The majority of the sound effects are very fitting, and the unique soundtrack (here’s a taste) does a great job of enhancing the atmosphere.

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Jedi Knight Bits

Jedi Knight came out just a year after the original Quake, and was already showing its age upon release. Its development team was wise enough to include support for hardware acceleration and mouse-look controls (complete with a neat if archaic calibration of the axes that allowed for some very sensitive camera movement), but the low- poly count was much harder to mask.

Guarded by a force field -- with a rather obvious power source -- this area leads into a twisting maze of vents that all have a different idea of where the gravity source is located. Confusing, but fun.

Jedi Knight still received very positive reviews, though, and rightfully so. It wasn’t perfect, and hasn’t aged particularly well, but I had a blast with it.

Here are some of the points that stuck out upon replaying it:

— The level design in Jedi Knight is fantastic, and probably its biggest strength. Of course level design was a bit of a different beast back then: areas tended to be much larger with fewer scripted events, the player had an inventory of keys and other usable items that facilitated environmental traversal, platforming puzzles were quite common (although usually disliked), movement was much, much quicker, etc.

Within that framework, though, the levels were a treat.

Despite the game’s low-poly count, its geometry was quite complex and varied. Textures were often repeated, but new ones trickled in periodically and every map had its own unique motif. The player was also constantly operating large-scale machinery that dynamically changed the landscape.

It all made for a nice combination of action, exploration and some occasional head-scratching. The only complaint I had with the levels were the large, industrial looking doors that were virtually indistinguishable from walls. Since these had to be opened with a button press, there were too many instances where the player could easily get stuck simply due to dodgy visuals.

It's actually not as dangerous as it looks, and you can bet there's a secret room underneath...

— In-between level cinematics consisted of live-action actors superimposed over CG backdrops. They were rather silly and pretty low-budget, but did a decent job of conveying the story while showcasing certain visuals that were not possible to render within the game engine.

— The player was able to carry 10 weapons at any one time, and many of them shared the same ammo source. The limited ammo made becoming a Jedi and obtaining a lightsaber all the more rewarding. Visually speaking the lightsaber wasn’t anything fantastic, but it had unlimited power and the added advantage of lighting up dark areas and deflecting smaller enemy shots.

— Jedi powers were earned as the player progressed through the game, and they could be focused on neutral abilities, the light path, or the dark side. The powers themselves were a nice addition to both the singleplayer and the multiplayer, and were sometimes necessary to progress through a level (or at least take a short cut).

Force Pull was a particularly fun one as it allowed you to snatch weapons out of the enemies’ hands or grab healing items from far away.

It's possible to blow up those barrels from this location, but due to wonky ray-tracing so common in older FPS games, my shots hit the wall.

— All the enemies responded to basic in-world physics, even after death, which made for some cool effects like a dead body sliding along the current of a pipeline.

— A lot of the audio was taken straight from the Star Wars movies, including the iconic sound effects and the famous scores by John Williams. These greatly enhanced the atmosphere and helped Jedi Knight stand out from other FPS titles of the era.

A TIE/sa Bomber hounding the player mid-way through the game.

— The way the game’s secret rooms were placed was quite clever as they followed a pattern that went against the common funneling/guiding techniques of level design, e.g., a small nook embedded into the wall just above the entrance to a room was very easy to miss if the player ran right in without looking up and behind.

Enemies were often utilized to help the player spot these locations as they would often be placed in seemingly inaccessible locations, but with enough sleuthing, the player could always discover a way to reach his foes. A tally at the end of each level also informed the player as to whether he missed any secrets.

The impetus to discover the secret areas was very good as well. Not only did these locations often contain health, armour and ammo, but finding all the secrets in a level rewarded the player with extra force powers.

Jedi Knight is available for cheap on Steam, although everyone should keep in mind that it’s a very lazy port/re-release. None of the GUI elements have been updated for higher resolutions, the title screen and in-game cinematics must be viewed in a windowed mode, and the game doesn’t come with its original music. There’s a fix for that, but make sure to check out the forums first to get a better idea if it’s worth your money.

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